Welfare as a Political Football


Gov. William Donald Schaefer's proposal to cut welfare payments is a thinly veiled attempt to use the poor as a political football. Suddenly, as the Senate Budget Committee puts the final touches on the state's 1992 spending plan, comes the announcement that the Schaefer administration is trimming welfare grants by as much as 5 percent to help close an estimated $9 million shortfall in the Department of Human Resources' budget.

In a letter to the 98,000 affected families, DHR Secretary Carolyn W. Colvin blamed the cuts on the General Assembly's failure to raise taxes. "We hope that the legislature will soon provide the money to increase your grant," she wrote.

That this comes just after the General Assembly buried Governor Schaefer's $800 million tax-reform plan makes it suspicious. That the cuts needn't have been proposed in the first place makes the move unconscionable.

Marylanders receiving benefits under the Aid to Families with Dependant Children and General Public Assistance programs would see their monthly stipends shrink by $4 to $16 -- a small but important sum to those scraping to feed and clothe their families. This move replaces an even more onerous proposal to pare GPA rolls. It is supposed to save DHR $1.7 million. Unless new money is found by the end of the month, to cover the remaining $7.3 million shortfall, the agency says it may be forced to slice yet deeper into programs for foster care, the homeless and the elderly.

Taking funds from the state's most vulnerable residents is unacceptable, especially when legislators were willing and able to shift money from other parts of the budget to make sure safety nets are kept in place. It is the responsibility of the hTC governor, not the legislature, to set priorities.

Could it be that the governor was trying to strong-arm the legislature to change its mind on taxes, or at the very least exact a little revenge by upsetting advocates for the poor?

If he was, his strategy boomeranged. Legislators have vowed to find the money to restore welfare benefits and may now feel justified in tampering with the budget in ways the governor may not like. Worse, this ruse hasn't fooled welfare advocates, who were invited to a special news conference to publicize the cuts. "It seems like there's this line drawn in the sand," remarked Darold Johnson, lobbyist for the Maryland Food Committee. "The executive branch and the legislature are using the poor to advocate or not advocate for a tax increase."

The governor's continuing feud with the legislature is a familiar, if tiresome, feature of Maryland politics. But using the poor to exact revenge in this game of political one-upmanship is unacceptable.

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